Caper in the Castro no longer exists. All images and code has been lost to time. There’s scarcely a flicker of information on the internet. Programmed by CM Ralph in the late 80s and distributed on underground BBS networks, it stands proudly outside of public perception despite boasting one of the most important accomplishments in the history of interactive entertainment. Caper in the Castro is probably the first LGBT videogame ever made.
I learned about Caper like a whisper. It was just some scarcely acknowledged footnote in time. But it seemed wrong to me that such an undeniably important moment had never gotten its just due. I went searching for CM Ralph, and through a particularly lucky combination of Google searches, I found a mysterious little blog and an email address. My query? “Are you CM Ralph?”
After a few more emails, she agreed to an interview. The following is a brief Q/A that has CM Ralph speaking about the groundbreaking game she programmed nearly 30 years ago. We hope it gives the historical record a little more context.
: Talk to me a little bit about your history. How long have you been coding? Do you still code now?
CM Ralph: I was always keenly interested in computers since the introduction of the PC, so I dabbled in programming but only as a hobbyist. Caper was really the first and only time I’d ever programmed anything seriously.
: There aren’t a lot of details about Caper in the Castro. Tell me a bit about how that game worked. Was it an adventure game? A puzzle game?
Ralph: The game was a murder mystery/problem solving game written in HyperCard on a Mac Plus. The back story was that the player assumed the role of a lesbian detective investigating the disappearance of a transgender woman in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. As the player solved each problem they grew closer to finding the missing woman. The game employed a mixture of graphics, text and sound to create the neighborhood the player would explore.
: Why did you want to make Caper in the Castro? What was the inspiration behind it?
Ralph: In 1988 I had moved from Southern California (behind the orange curtain) to the San Francisco Bay Area. I was so impressed and grateful for the freedom of the LBGT community here as compared to what I had lived in down in SoCal. I wanted to give back to the community and also create a way to raise money for AIDS Charities. The game was distributed as “Charity Ware” and instead of asking for payment, I requested that people who downloaded the game donate money to the AIDS Charity of their choice.
: From what I understand the game was spread on underground LGBT forums in the late 80s. What was the LGBT scene like on computers at that time
Ralph: Back then we had BBS—Bulletin Board Systems. Computers connected directly to each other over the phone. There was no internet. But these BBS’s were the forerunner to what forums are today. They were used primarily to distribute programs and information. The LGBT BBS network was very small and very underground—just a few in countries around the world—but we all knew each other.
: What was the reception to the game like?
Ralph: It was embraced and enjoyed. At the time, seen as quite an innovative breakthrough. No one had ever attempted creating a game with LGBT characters and theme.
: The game was later made into a heterosexual version. Talk a little bit about that process and why that happened.
Ralph: Yes, Murder on Main Street. It was published by Heizer Software. Back then you could order software written by indie programmers from mail order catalogs. They sold the game for several years. Basically all I did was change the names and places. My reasoning was that I wanted to tap into the mainstream audience—1988 was a lot different than 2014 when it came to how LGBT people and issues were viewed and treated.
: Videogames have become a much safer place for LGBT people in modern times, as seen in games like The Last of Us and Gone Home. Do you think that games have become more queer? Do you think that’s important?
Ralph: I think diversity is always important—in all things. As I watch societies evolve and become more inclusive and respectful I remember, not that long ago, when they were not. When I was a teenager growing-up in Upstate NY you could be arrested and face life in a mental hospital if you were found to be a homosexual. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association declassified it as a mental illness and 1990 when it was declassified by the World Health Organization. I am grateful that the LGBT youth of today do not have to live with that kind of fear and stigma.
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.